Ellie Street: TW: Navigating the realisation that you have been sexually assaulted...
Updated: Aug 14, 2020
It can be unanimously accepted that many prevalent issues in society are not addressed enough or taken as seriously as they need to be, both by the law and among public attitudes. An issue that severely lacks action is sexual assault and harassment, which devastatingly distorts the lives of people of all genders, sexualities, ages, ethnicities and races. Generating a sense of urgency to tackle sexual assault, rape and oversexualisation of women in society can truly feel like a lost cause when the president of America is celebrated, regardless of his disregard of consent and general misogyny, and the #metoo movement is met with a flurry of rejection; including comments that survivors opening up are “hopping on the bandwagon” and the assertion that many heterosexual men are now afraid of dating as they “can’t do anything right”. This is not forgetting the fact that conviction rates are far lower than other crimes; out of every 1000 sexual assaults, 995 perpetrators walk free (rain.org).
I graduated last year after spending 3 years immersed in university culture, a culture inextricably associated with both lad culture and hypersexuality discourses. But, even before this exposure to an environment where, so frequently, the importance of consent wasn’t respected, I’d still say I had a pretty vast range of exposure to a significant amount of sexual harassment. This ranged from unsolicited dick picks, being catcalled in my school uniform whilst with my mum (yes, this is incomprehensibly gross alas, common), to then being unnecessarily held by the hips and brushed by a sweaty strangers crotch as they passed me in a bar – all of this occurring before I entered this new university bubble.
A friend I lived with, who is Asian, educated me on her experiences of how women of ethnic minorities are fetishized so frequently and severely; there are dimensions to the topic of sexualisation of women that I am fortunate enough to not have to live and directly experience, but the silencing of the issue of fetishization of different cultures, races and ethnicities is even more silenced. BAME people suffer incomprehensible levels of cumulative structural violence. My approach was always to try to push the anger and embarrassment down so I could attempt to carry on and enjoy my day afterwards. After all, why should I dwell and let it affect me? Women must be graceful, right? The “bigger” person, and men who are harmed by sexual violence are shamed into silence in a similar way, but through another whole system of shaming and isolation which *shock* also isn’t addressed.
The issue is embedded in people’s lives that, if I mentioned the word ‘harassment’ to my 4 female housemates, the chances are they would mention a time where they experienced similar in the last week; one time another housemate and I were inappropriately propositioned over and over by our letting agent who had access to keys to all of our bedrooms, and we thought best to make a joke of it to mask the genuine sense of unsettlement, a response so many women feel they must resort to. One experience of sexual assault I faced, however, was particularly devastating for me: one I had completely buried in the deepest crevices of my memory which took place over 7 years ago when I was 15.
It is very common, yet unfortunately, very unaddressed, for survivors of sexual assault to not begin the process of what has happened to them until much later, even decades after. When the penny dropped for me about what happened to my 15-year-old self, I found this to be an exceedingly confusing, isolating and traumatising thing to have to start processing so late. It left me confused as to why I hadn’t really unpacked this and made matters worse for me. The complications of not being the same person I was all that time ago, in such a transitional age, but still having this enormous load of emotional labour from the violation to my body and soul dumped in my hands all of a sudden which was overwhelmingly bewildering. Obviously as well as the invasive certain feeling that if I did speak out so late no one would care, “people move on”. Not to mention, the added voice in your head that tells you that perhaps your abuser was younger and reckless, that they may have turned a new leaf since then, all contributing to what often becomes an incredibly draining and isolating rabbit hole of thoughts, feelings and alienation.
It is also worth mentioning that to many people’s surprise, most cases of sexual assault and rape is perpetrated and conducted by what is known in victimology as ‘intimates’, meaning those trusted by and close to the survivor: friends, colleagues, relatives, carers, etc. In fact, 90% of cases are carried out by a known perpetrator (rapecrisis.org). So clearly the myth that most of the predators are the strangers in alleyways and that people are always safe in their own communities needs debunking. As my abuser was a close male friend at the time, this complicated my feelings enormously…
What if he just liked me in that way and I had led him on without realising?
If I can expect this sort of behaviour from a trusted friend is this just what I should be expecting from men in my life?
What if he lies to our friends and acts as if I wanted this?
What if he’s serious when he told me he was sorry, and I should let this go for my sake?
Wouldn’t it be more convenient for me to just act cool with him since I’m going to be seeing him around all the time?
People get assaulted by strangers which must be scarier, I should feel sorrier for people like that than myself?
Was the whole friendship just laying the foundation for what he did that night?
I could go on.
These questions reared their ugly heads almost immediately each time I would start to contemplate what happened to me, which I suppose restricted me from reaching any sort of stable feeling towards what happened; I shut myself up with the questions that devil’s advocate players in society love to ask survivors before society could ask me them. This self-silencing repeated and repeated before I could take the first step in understanding my pain, extending my inability to land on a stable emotion for long enough for me to make sense of anything. Eventually I decided to drop it and stay in his life as a friend for most of a decade.
It wasn’t until 7 years later when I was having a conversation with a guy I was seeing about a sexual assault victimology seminar I had been to earlier that day (who knew no one from my home circle in a new city having a new conversation) that I really put two and two together and began my process. My victimology lecturer had mentioned the intricacy and prolonged nature of trauma and how certain triggers you could never imagine, can and do impact survivors’ average day and ultimately their healing. She used the example:
“If someone had been sexually assaulted by their uncle one Christmas, and that uncle has previously given them a bauble as a gift, Christmas may forever be an immensely difficult time for that person and simple things such as Christmas decorations may make them experience unbearable memories and feelings.”
As ridiculous as this may or may not sound, reader, this got me to understand my ongoing nauseating hatred of condensation and rain on running down windows, because as I was being assaulted, I locked my head to the side to fixate on my view of the rain on windows because I wanted to relieve my mind and, I suppose, escape. The severity of impacts this happening all those years ago suddenly hit me when the guy I was dating in final year told me, simply, that it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t even know this at the time or at all since the event, but I so badly needed to hear this. However, these findings shook the world inside my head for months. I cried in a heap, felt nothing, then felt everything and felt numb again in every order, on and on in a relentless loop. I suffered severe shame, sleepless nights, and even dissociation; I felt imprisoned in my body, disgusted by my body and sometimes, horrifyingly like I wasn’t attached to my body. I also began to think perhaps the reason I was hypersexual at university at times and generally since this event may have a lot to do with this whole shitstorm; perhaps I was obsessed with reclaiming the control of my body as an autonomous sexual agent, linking sex to power, that sense of control and stability I was robbed of. I know what some of you may think, maybe I was just having fun and fulfilling the university student stereotype and maybe it wasn’t so deep which definitely could be the case too, but please hear me when I say it’s hard to distinguish the deep from the normal when your mind is in what-the-fuck-is-going-on mode.
Slowly, I began to inform my home mates what happened, and I came to discover from them that I wasn’t the only one significantly impacted by my abuser’s actions (I heard of about 3 others). I let myself cut him off at last. Inevitably, part of me wondered… is it a bit late or dramatic to do this? If mutual friends notice I am cold with him suddenly, would they think its dumb, turn against me? Why did I choose to do this now? The truth is, when you realise your abuser isn’t a friend or a person who didn’t know any better, but an accountable agent who disregarded someone’s lack of consent, its truly not your place to “be the bigger person” and forgive; it’s your responsibility to yourself to exercise self-love and self-compassion and let yourself heal, not to worry about anybody who may disagree with your choice to not tolerate what happened to you. Being honest, I wish I knew that anyone who might disagree with someone for cutting off an abuser is not someone I needed around years ago.
Talking about it helps, and as saddening as it is, you aren’t as alone in your experience as you feel; so many survivors are out there seeking a person who understands the pain they’ve felt. Some people who have experienced similar won’t want to discuss it, you may not either, and that is okay; there is not a “one size fits all” method to healing, but knowing you deserve the chance to heal is a good place to start. Trust the process and know that feeling better isn’t linear and back-to-square-one moments often are just bad days and that you will feel like you again sooner than you may believe. I would say also, there were times after the penny dropping for me that I certainly wished that it never did drop, and I resented myself for what felt like subscribing to an endless membership of emotional work and unpacking. Now, however, I no longer wish to go back my years of subconscious denial of what happened because during that time I put my own needs and emotional rights on the backburner.
You are not what happened to you.
You are not to blame.
You aren’t failing if you do not heal perfectly.
It is never too late to seek help, and there is strength in seeking help.
Healing isn’t a simple task you can just finish but starting is always something your future self will be glad you did.
It is never too late to begin healing.
And yes, it gets better. Read that again.
For BAME people:
BAATN The black, African and Asian Therapy Network: https://www.baatn.org.uk/free-services/
For mental health support for anyone:
Rape Crisis Helpline: 0808 802 9999 (12-2:30 and 7-9:30) rapecrisis.org.uk
Victim Support Supportline: 0333 300 6389
Counselling for women: https://www.mayacentre.org.uk/
Women's Aid Federation National Domestic Violence Helpline (24hrs): 0808 2000 247 womensaid.org.uk
Survivors UK – Male Rape and Sexual Abuse Support survivorsuk.org
Rape Crisis Network Europe www.rcne.com
Supporting loved ones who are survivors: